A Great Way to Ask

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Over at Ask a Manager a while back, someone wrote in about a question her boss's boss asked her while her immediate superior was away. It boils down to:

Image by Amy Hirschi, via Unsplash, license.
  1. Briefly making it clear that she wanted and valued this person's perspective, and why;
  2. Asking what she thought her boss might say, were she available; and
  3. Asking if she had an additional or different recommendation.
This is excellent in several ways, as Alsion Green explains in her reply, and it is not hard to imagine adding this tactic to one's communication arsenal in non-working contexts.

Read the whole thing.

-- CAV


Regulation vs. Testing

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The prestigious scientific journal Nature offers what is at once an inspiring look at how science is holding off an epidemic -- and a damning (albeit incidental) indictment of the regulatory state.

Iceland is open to tourists. (Image by Nicolas J Leclercq, via Unsplash, license.)
A century [after the Spanish flu pandemic], the Icelandic government was better prepared, enacting a national pandemic preparedness plan at the beginning of January, two months before COVID-19 arrived. "We decided from the beginning we would use isolation, quarantine and contact tracing," says Þórólfur Guðnason, chief epidemiologist at the Directorate of Health. As part of that plan, the microbiology laboratory at the university hospital began testing citizens in early February. [bold added]
Does any of that sound familiar?

Of particular note in the article is the matter of testing, which has been a national disgrace in America, but not just for the reason most commonly supposed (and supplied by the article), a lack of federal leadership:
[E]arly in the pandemic, many US labs pivoted to offer coronavirus testing, but were stymied by regulatory and administrative obstacles...
And we're not talking about rapid antigen tests, which could still stop the pandemic in its tracks by allowing people to know whether they might be contagious, but the diagnostic ones, which have also been hindered by the FDA.

A common theme I have noticed among countries that have best weathered this storm has been a willingness to learn from history: South Korea from a MERS outbreak, Taiwan from SARS, and now Iceland. America must follow suit, both in terms of fundamentally questioning its medical regulatory apparatus in general and having a better plan in place for the next pandemic in particular. There's even time to improve before the vaccines start rolling out -- by getting the government out of the way of contagiousness testing as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Iceland's superior testing has saved lives and is helping scientists forge ahead on such highly relevant topics as viral load and super-spreading.

-- CAV


It Is Not 'Self-Interest' to Take Illness Lightly

Monday, November 30, 2020

Replying to someone whose employer is oblivious at best to the pandemic, Alison Green wisely observes (Scroll down to no. 3.) that how a business handles a crisis isn't just an indicator of how they might handle other crises, but of how they operate in general:

I think it's strongly correlated in several ways. First and foremost, it says they're cavalier about public health, and their employees' health in particular. In your company's case, it also says you can't trust what they say; they might tell you something's okay but then penalize you for it.
Yes, and that goes for individuals, governments, and political factions as well.

But I can give only one cheer, because Green's acumen in management is dulled by her acceptance of common stereotypes about selfishness as short-sighted and predatory -- as we see in the rest of her response:
And it says they're either willing to buy into the politicization of a serious public health issue if it suits their own agenda or -- if they'd be doing this even if Covid hadn't become politicized -- that they prioritize their profits way over the safety of their employees (beyond even the typical amount of self-interest you normally see under capitalism). [bold added]
This business is being short-sighted, yes. But that is actually the opposite of what an exemplar of selfishness or a consistent capitalist would do.

The best short response to these notions I can muster is to combine Ben Bayer's recent observation, from a column titled, "Be More Selfish: Wear a Mask," with Walt Disney World's excellent safety record since reopening in Florida.

Bayer makes the following observation, which would probably be obvious but for our culture's saturation with the ethics of altruism:
This, but with fewer people, and everyone wearing masks. (Image by Christian Lambert, via Unsplash, license.)
Other people's lives contribute immensely to one's own self-interest. A world full of sick and dying people is not to anyone's advantage. Anyone who misses the life we all lost in March is already familiar with this. Whether you've lost a job or are grieving for a loved one, or even just miss being able to go to a restaurant with friends, you know other people matter to your interests. They are the potential employers, producers, innovators, and friends who help each of us live a happy human life. So why would you want to slow the return to normal life with people by getting them sick?
Applied to business, this emphatically means taking precautions against spreading this illness, something Disney has shown -- where it is free to operate -- is quite possible regarding its workers (whom it needs healthy to be able to function, let alone prosper):
"'We've had very few [cases], and none, as far as we can tell, have been from work-related exposure,' said Eric Clinton, president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents roughly 8,000 attraction workers and custodians."
It is also self-interested to protect customers -- obviously for the sake of income and reputation. I can speak from experience on this count: Our family went there a couple of weeks ago, and I was amazed at how well-thought-out the precautions were. Most activities were available in some form. (Exceptions seemed mainly related activities that could result in prolonged contact between guests. Hands-on activities after some rides at Epcot were closed, there were no fireworks shows, and parades were very short, reducing both crowding and duration of any exposure.)

My wife and I are both moderate risk and we both felt comfortable there the whole time. At the risk of beating a dead horse: It was plainly in Disney's best interests to keep their employees and customers safe. The company did this by taking the pandemic seriously, learning how transmission occurs, and changing operating procedures and rules to allow operation at a level of risk most people would find acceptable.

Not only does capitalism not prioritize profits over safety, the fact that people are free to trade with each other (or not) in capitalism means that one cannot have profits without safety, at least not for very long.

-- CAV


Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

This will be my last post for the week as I break for Thanksgiving.

***

Fellow admirers of Ayn Rand will be familiar with her brief description of Thanksgiving:
Image by Sheri Hooley, via Unsplash, license.
Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form (giving thanks to God for a good harvest), its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers' holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production. Abundance is (or was and ought to be) America's pride -- just as it is the pride of American parents that their children need never know starvation. ("Cashing in on Hunger," The Ayn Rand Letter (1974) vol. III, no. 23)
That quote deserves to be published widely, and not just on this holiday.

But so does the essay from which it came, in which Rand analyzes and demolishes a strident column calling for Americans to fast the week before the holiday and sacrificially assume the burden of feeding the world.

The following passage is particularly relevant today, over forty-five years later:
To call American abundance a "grotesque inequality," to brush aside the source and cause of that abundance -- the tremendous effort, the heroic struggle, the unremitting work, the intelligence, the ambition (and the freedom) of millions of men that transformed an empty wilderness into a land of unprecedented abundance -- to ascribe that magnificent achievement to the use of "the world's resources," is to utter a grotesque obscenity. To call it an appeal to justice is the ultimate touch of cynical effrontery. (Ibid.)
In fact, I would recommend anyone with access to the full essay read it soon after the festivities are over: It holds up better than one might expect for an answer to a column written so long ago. That is because Rand focused so well on the essentials -- of what was and remains wrong with the dominant culture, and yet right about America.

Rand's essay is a masterpiece of justice towards the productive, and that is exactly what this happy celebration is all about.

-- CAV


A Writing Retreat for Everyone?

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

I never imagined I'd see the subject of ASMR make an appearance on a blog about deep work, but that day has come, in the form of a Cal Newport post titled, "On Technology and Focus: ASMR, VR, and the First Steps Toward Immersive Single Tasking."

Newport describes ASMR -- of which the painter Bob Ross is something of a patron saint -- as follows:

Around 2010, a curious new term arose in obscure but energetic internet chatrooms: autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR, as it was soon abbreviated, described a peculiar form of paresthesia experienced as a tingling that starts in the scalp and then moves down the back. It's often triggered by specific sounds, like soft whispering or a paintbrush scraping canvas. Not surprisingly, those sensitive to ASMR sometimes found Bob Ross reruns to be a reliable source of the effect.

What makes ASMR relevant to our interests here is that it happened to emerge as a topic of discussion just as YouTube emerged as a cultural force. Soon a cottage industry arose of AMSR videos featuring meticulously recorded trigger sounds. One such video opens on a straw stirring seltzer water. A little later it zooms in on a knife scraping dried blush on a make-up tray. It's been viewed over four and a half million times.
Newport notes that there is now a sub-genre, the ASMR room, in which mostly static shots of rooms with calming sounds are used to "invoke a sense of meditative calm and focus."

I am listening to Newport's first example of one of these now: It's an image of Charles Dickens's Victorian writing room, in which the only motion is from the flames of the fireplace and the rain outside. (See the embedded video below.) The sound is a nice overlay of crackling flames on a background of falling rain.


Two things interest me about this. First, although I do not experience ASMR and did not know about these "rooms," I have found soundtracks of background noise -- some like this -- useful when working. The sound both distracts me from tinnitus and provides low, constant background noise, including of such venues as coffee shops at times I can't or don't want to go to one. Second, I have also experimented with them for meditation or napping. So the ASMR rooms are a new source of such material for me.

But one of Newport's readers goes a step further than I did:
[S]he plays the video full screen on her computer while positioning a word processor document in front of it. She listens to the stereo sound in high quality noise cancelling headphones. Though she works out of a "small and noisy urban flat," the video and sounds help her fall into a state of concentration when she needs to write.
Newport thinks this reader is onto something, and goes on to make interesting speculations as to how to expand on the idea of such "rooms" using virtual reality technology.

My mental shorthand for this exciting family of possibilities is per the title, or even Man Caves for Everyone. Both somewhat imperfectly capture the idea of every Tom, Dick, and Harry having access, thanks to capitalism, to his own personal, customized retreat for deep work of nearly any description.

-- CAV


'The Science' Doesn't Really Matter to the Left

Monday, November 23, 2020

Pre-Pandemic, leftists were fond of using "the science" as a rhetorical cudgel, most noticeably in the public policy debate over fossil fuels. To take much of what that side of the debate said at face value, there was a broad consensus among scientists that continued use of fossil fuels at current rates would soon cause irreparable damage to the Earth's climate.

Let's set aside several questions for the moment, such as, (1) whether there really is a consensus, (2) what any such consensus might be about, or (3) whether the left's particular policy prescriptions are a good idea or even follow from what scientists know.

Since then, the left has invoked "the science" for its particular policy prescriptions regarding the pandemic. Exhibit A is California's Gavin Newsom, who should be recalled. Newsom has imposed varying degrees of "lockdown" by decree ever since "two weeks to flatten the curve" in the spring, in the name of following "the science." To wit:

The governor has failed to follow the science.

If he were to use what science taught him, in other words, to "follow the science", he would allow children back in school. Instead of the government spending staggering amounts of money to prop up a closed economy, it should spend some on sanitizing the schools, keep them safe from COVID, and let the children go back to class. Children were allowed in classrooms throughout the pandemic but only when used as a daycare. Science tells us the virus does not know the difference when the same classroom is used for education.
But in case anyone out there might object that Newsom is misinformed or is misapplying what he regards as "the science," the public sector teachers' unions are -- inadvertently -- doing a fine job of teaching us (!) this same lesson on a national scale, by insisting on remote learning anywhere they have enough political clout to do so:
Scientists go to where the evidence leads them, not simply to wherever they feel like going at the moment. (Image by The National Cancer Institute, via Unsplash, license.)
[N]otwithstanding the scientific consensus -- namely, that closing schools does far more harm than good -- teachers' unions in many big cities have simply refused to go back into the classroom, claiming it's too dangerous. Public schools didn't reopen in the fall in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and most other large cities. Several teachers' unions have said flatly that they won't come back until a vaccine is available.

And then there's New York City, which tragically shut down its school system on Thursday after having opened schools to hybrid learning in late September. Did Mayor Bill de Blasio make the decision to close them because they were suddenly Covid-19 hotspots? No. Although the citywide positivity rate has risen above 3%, the rate of infection in the schools was astonishingly low: 0.15%. Kids were not infecting teachers, and teachers weren't infecting students -- just as study after study had suggested would be the case.

Rather, it was because to get the United Federation of Teachers to agree to come back to the classroom, de Blasio had to agree that if the city reached a 3% positivity rate threshold, the school system would return to remote learning.

Was there any science behind the 3% threshold? No...
President Trump lost his reelection bid in part because he ignored science that would have (a) led him to take the pandemic more seriously, and (b) helped him see what he could have done about it. It is now -- without Donald Trump there to make the Democrats look good solely by contrast -- the left's turn in the limelight.

A silver lining to the pandemic may well be that the left will lose its undeserved reputation as standing for reason and science. There lies opportunity for a political movement that truly will.

-- CAV


Pro-Liberty Roundup, Part III

Friday, November 20, 2020

This is the third and final part of a series with three installments.

***

Image by Oliver Plattner, via Unsplash, license.
"[E]conomic self-interest dovetailed nicely with infection control for both Disney World and the NBA." -- Paul Hsieh, in "Three Covid-19 Success Stories" (Forbes)

"Lost in this focus on market share is how the large market share was obtained." -- Raymond Niles, in "Monopoly vs. Monopoly: Sloppy Definitions Lead to Harmful Policy" (American Institute for Economic Research)

"We need more testing and more actionable rapid turn-around tests." -- Amesh Adalja, in "Biden's Administration Should Immediately Prioritize These Five Pandemic Tasks" (LeapsMag)

[Trump's prescription drug 'International Pricing Index'] would ... import foreign price controls set by governments in their nationalized health care systems [and] the negative effects of weaker intellectual property systems in those foreign countries as well." -- Adam Mossoff, in "Why We Don't Want to Import Weak Intellectual Property Systems" (Daily Signal)

"True capitalism (i.e. without government interference such as bailouts, regulations, favors, and backroom deals) provides the freedom for businessmen to produce, but they have to do it honestly, otherwise they will not be successful." -- Charlotte Cushman, in "Capitalism as a Moral Instrument" (American Thinker)"

[W]hen it's time to communicate, your total focus needs to be on: what does the audience need to know to reach this conclusion from reality, given its context?" -- Don Watkins, in "How to Read (And Then to Write)" (Medium)

"By addressing these questions, I hope to revivify and indeed save the intellectual Right from the anti-intellectual, anti-American currents that presently run through it." -- C. Bradley Thompson, in "A Prolegomenon to Any Future Controversies: Responding to My Pajama-Boy Critics (Redneck Intellectual)

"On the other hand, if we see that technology can make things better, much better, but only when used wisely -- then the solution is obviously to get wiser about how we use it." -- Jason Crawford, in Is Technology Actually Making Things Better?" (Pairagraph)

-- CAV